Saturday, March 7, 2009
[Regular reader Jonathan wrote an email asking for my thoughts about a confusing day he recently had. Jonathan said I could share his story here, and I've added my response as well. We're both wondering what you think too . . .]
Howdy Macon D,
I stumbled upon your webpage a while ago on accident and have been returning occasionally since.
Something happened to me yesterday that I am hoping you could help me reflect on.
I (white male, age 25) live in a decent neighborhood, not good, not awful, which I would guess is 85% black, 5% white, and 10% Hispanic, with most of the white population being elderly shut-ins. I was helping a neighbor across a city park from me cut up and remove a tree limb that fell on his property recently. This entailed me first bringing my chain saw over to his place, cutting the branch, and then removing the wood by hand. So, I had to make five or six trips to finish the job.
From the very start of this activity, a group of 4-6 boys (maybe as old as Sophomores in high school or as young as 7th graders) began shouting racists remarks at me and following me at a distance. Because of my cart, I was moving mostly on the pavement around the park, while they stayed in the center area. The phrases would typically be honky, redneck, other terms I hadn't even heard of. And of course, all of those terms mixed with expletives. They even offered to sell me, "some of that shit white people like." I tried to tune it out and keep my head forward as best as I could, but my ears were also open to hear if they were getting closer or further, so I did hear most.
Each time I would make a trip through or around the park, they would find me. They began timidly, but by the end they were shouting these remarks so loudly that there is no doubt that most of the homes surrounding the park could have easily heard. I was making these trips for ~2.5 hours and they kept it up the entire time. The only time they took a break was on one pass, when they addressed me as "sir" and asked if I had any cigarettes to give them. Upon me informing them that I did not, they immediately resumed the name calling. And, one of the kids pronounced loudly that he had smoked some "big-ass" blunts (the other kids tried to hush him from saying that).
This is a neighborhood where I often hear people saying racist things (going both ways), but never in such a way that they were hoping I was listening. In passing is fine by me, maybe that person had a bad day, is just letting off some steam, or is from a time and place where those types of words may have been permissible. This is the first time anyone has been so persistent in antagonizing me. Even when I returned a piece of equipment to my neighbor (who is a retired black man that commands some respect in the neighborhood), they continued to yell at me in his presence. By then it was nightfall, and they could yell from the darkness.
I guess I just feel funny from the whole experience. I never feared for my safety, I am a tall and strong man. They were certainly individually weaker than I (but had the numbers and possibly a weapon). But, I am shaken and took steps to keep them from knowing with 100% certainty which house I live in (though if they had half a mind they would know). And, these children are young enough that they have no excuse for using racist terms and thinking it all right. They certainly knew they were being offensive by their tone and persistence.
I guess the feeling is just that there is nothing I could do to make them stop. I don't know who the head of their households are. I could not confront them about it. I don't think that I had a serious complaint to make to a legal authority. And the worst part is, I can think of no plan of action if the same thing happens in the future.
Just curious if you had any thoughts that could help me get over this weird feeling. Thanks for your time and have a great day.
Thank you for sharing your story, and for letting me share it with this blog's readers. I hope they'll have some input too.
First of all, although I think and write as much as I can about being white in America, I should not try to write to you from a position of expertise or lengthy experience, in some sort of advisory capacity. I live in a much whiter neighborhood, for one thing, and I've never had a day like that. I also don't know you, nor how much thinking and interacting you've done so far in terms of race, including your own race.
That said, I find it admirable that although you don't know what that "weird feeling" was, you are trying to articulate it. Unlike people of color, your white self could easily turn away from moments that bring on racial self-awareness. But you haven't done that.
So, what could that weirdness inside of you be? And what might you have done differently that day?
I imagine that part of you wants to complain and lash out at what seems like unfair and even potentially dangerous racism, which was aimed at you, when all you were doing was going about your life in that neighborhood, and on that day, even helping a neighbor. And yet, there's another part of you that feels differently. Maybe that's the part that compels you to do things like read this anti-racist blog, and to struggle against thoughts and feelings that you know are wrong. You may well know that white people, people who are like you in at least that sense, control this society--that we live in a de facto white supremacist society, which in most of its sectors privileges people like you over people who are not white. People like those boys who were giving you a hard time.
So what's a well-meaning white guy to do, and think, in a situation like that? You thought what they were doing was wrong--would it have been an unwarranted assertion of your white male privilege to somehow try to stop them?
In a way, I see a kind of white, male privilege reflected in how you didn't stop them. You kept your "head forward" as you went about your business, and you were able to do so because the "racism" coming at you basically seemed harmless. You pretty much knew they weren't really going to mess with you, at least not in open daylight.
That purposeful, onward movement of yours, that freedom to go about your business with relatively unimpeded confidence--doesn't that parallel our white male privilege more generally, the way it encourages us to operate in the world? I think it does, in the sense that we can almost always turn away from people or incidents that make us aware of our racial, and/or gendered, status. We can turn away and carry on with our business, relatively confident that no one's going to get in our way. Non-white people have a harder time doing that, and feeling that way while doing it, and so do women.
But then, as you also seem to know, and fear, those boys really could be dangerous. Maybe they do resent your white presence enough to harm you, or at least your house, or maybe it's not even your whiteness that could make you their target. Which is why you made sure they wouldn't know where you live. And then you felt "shaken" by those hours of taunting, perhaps with anger, but perhaps with fear as well. Although I think it's good to think about your white male self on that day as a relatively empowered self, it's also good to be realistic. A group of boys of any color, doing such a thing to me in any neighborhood, would make me worry about further attacks.
So, I wonder if you could have defused the situation somehow. When you kept your head "forward" like that, and basically ignored those boys, could they have interpreted that as arrogance? As a familiar, particularly white disrespect and disregard for who they are, as young black men? I of course have no idea what they were thinking, but I wonder, could your apparent attitude be a reason that they called you "sir" at one point, to point out what seems to them a typically white aloofness?
I wonder what might've happened had you tried to talk to them, in a respectful, friendly way. You said you didn't feel particularly endangered physically, because even though they might've had weapons, you're a big guy. What if you had stopped what you were doing and walked over them and asked, "Can we talk? Who are you guys? [which sounds very white, but hey, you are white] Anyone interested in helping me with this job I'm doing? What are your names? Do you live around here?" And so on.
You said that "the worst part is, I can think of no plan of action if the same thing happens in the future." Could that be a plan of action? Or am I just fantasizing about interracial harmony, because such actions would only place you in even more danger?
Thank you for sharing your story, Jonathan, and your confusion. I wish I had something more wise and concrete to say. I hope you'll write back with more of your thoughts and feelings, and good luck to you if this kind of thing happens again. As I said, I applaud your efforts to understand this incident and your place in it, instead of just acting on common, knee-jerk responses.
And finally, dear readers, what do you think of all this? Any thoughts or advice?
Have you ever been involved in similar incidents? What did you do?